Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Love Letter to Judah ibn Tibbon (Or, a Paragraph that Probably Won't Make the Final Cut)

The third chapter of my book project is about the poetics articulated across the oeuvre of Judah ibn Tibbon.

It ends with a final section that I am terming an excursus that examines the poetry written by an author so actively engaged with the literary-critical traditions of Arabic poetics. Even though the first three chapters are currently out for review, I had not yet written the excursus. It doesn't really interrupt the flow of the book one way or the other, and it is set up as something of a stand-alone section; so I didn't begin to write it until this morning.

I expect that the first paragraph that I've written won't survive in the final version. I'd like it to, but love isn't a response permitted to literary critics and cultural historians, especially the ones who are trying to prove themselves in their first books. Writing in one's own voice is not something that is supposed to happen in academic monographs. And so this is what I shan't say in my book about Judah, the terrible poet whom I've come to adore:

One of the pleasures of undertaking a project such as this one is really getting to know the subject and to begin — in a historiographically and literary-critically problematic process — to feel a real kinship with him. In this case, I have come to appreciate above all else Judah ibn Tibbon’s reserved, wicked sense of humor. Eight hundred years dead, he can still make me laugh. And so when I say that Judah ibn Tibbon was a terrible poet, I do so with a real love of the man, a genuine sympathy towards his intellectual program, and an ongoing appreciation of his style. He was a great and engaging and thoughtful prose writer and that is what has made it possible to live with him in my head, as I have, day in and day out, for almost the last five years. But a poet he was not (though I love him all the same). He falls into the category of historically — and even literarily — important but bad poets, where he is joined by the likes of Meir Halevi Abulafia, leaving behind a poetic legacy that must be contended with  if not enjoyed.

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